Quinn’s considerable ambition and talent for playing the political game were evident from the earliest days of her career. In 1996, Quinn resigned as Duane’s chief of staff to become the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. But in 1999, after Duane was elected to the State Senate, Quinn ran for his council seat and won (because Quinn won in a special election to fill Duane’s seat for the remaining two years of his term, she was entitled to run twice more). In that first race, Quinn beat out three contenders, two of whom were also gay. In one of the more bizarre moments in New York politics, a rumor began circulating that Quinn was actually straight and faking it—a story that could have hurt her with voters in her gay-centric district. “Dirty tricks,” she says. “You were inned?” I ask. “Yes, I was inned.”
After taking office, Quinn quickly ingratiated herself with the powers that be. “Spare me from the people who think they know it all,” says Peter Vallone, who was council speaker when Quinn took office. “Christine came in and said, ‘I’m willing to learn.’ ” Quinn made a priority out of fighting for funding for AIDS programs and the homeless; she also weighed in as an advocate for tenants and small businesses in zoning issues in her district. She established her political personality early on. In a meeting with a Vallone staffer to discuss a proposed law to require landlords to remove lead paint, she pressed for tougher rules without alienating her opponent. “She said, ‘I can’t be with you,’ but she didn’t want to make it personal,” the staffer says. “She could disagree without being disagreeable.” It was also clear she was willing, within reason, to play ball politically. A real-estate-industry lobbyist says he supported Quinn for speaker, despite her record as a tenants advocate, because he found her trustworthy and reasonable. “We thought we could do business with her,” he says.
When Vallone was forced out by term limits in 2001 and the 32-year-old Miller ran for speaker, Quinn backed his underdog quest. “Chris was one of the first to support me,” says Miller, who rewarded her loyalty by naming her chair of the powerful Health Committee. By campaigning at Miller’s side, Quinn also watched Miller put together a winning Queens-Brooklyn coalition and met many of the players whose help she’d need four years later.
The race for speaker isn’t just about wooing the votes of 50 colleagues: It’s a five-borough free-for-all that requires courting local pols and unions and lobbyists to create a critical mass of influential supporters.
Some council members say they’re afraid of Quinn. “Fear is good,” says Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey. “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
Quinn’s opponents in the hotly contested seven-person race included Bill de Blasio, a popular six-foot-five Brooklyn councilman with strong labor connections who worked in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration and was the campaign manger for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate race. De Blasio’s Brooklyn rival, Lewis Fidler, a councilman with close ties to borough officials, also sought the job. The other contenders were three influential Queens council members—Melinda Katz, a former assemblywoman who presides over the Land-Use Committee; David Weprin, the chair of the powerful Finance Committee; and LeRoy Comrie, a well-regarded African-American pol serving as assistant majority leader—as well as Bronx long shot Joel Rivera, the 27-year-old son of borough Democratic leader and state assemblyman Jose Rivera. Quinn was the lone Manhattan contender. The conventional wisdom held that De Blasio was the favorite. Brooklyn has more council members, sixteen, than any other borough, and De Blasio was considered the lead Brooklyn contender.
De Blasio, who ran a grassroots campaign, seemed to have the edge in romancing individual council members until shortly before the vote. In the final weekend of the campaign, however, Quinn brokered a backstage victory by winning the support of two influential Democratic Party bosses, former U.S. congressman Tom Manton of Queens and Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn assemblyman, who strong-armed council members from their vote-rich districts (Queens has fourteen council members) to rally to her side. “She understood, better than I did, that a lot of this ball game revolved around the county Democratic leaders,” De Blasio says. “She did a better job in developing those relationships, presenting a personality they were comfortable with, finding out how not to be threatening to them.”
Quinn insists that she did not make any specific promises to Manton or Lopez. Their discussions, she says, were “relational, not transactional.”
“She did all the right things in terms of campaigning in Queens,” Manton told me one day at City Hall. Was he promised a certain number of jobs or committees? “With politics—it’s a little harsh to say—to the victors belong the spoils.”
Quinn was sworn in on January 4 and two weeks later began paying out the campaign IOUs. After a whirlwind of meetings and cajoling phone calls from council members, she announced the coveted chairmanships of committees and subcommittees and passed out nearly $500,000 worth of extra pay to favored legislators (known as lulus, for “in lieu of expenses”).
Queens did well by virtue of the fact that Katz and Weprin held on to their influential posts. Quinn appointed her Brooklyn rivals, De Blasio and Fidler, to newly created leadership posts as assistant majority leaders, with $15,000 lulus. “I guess with De Blasio, it was a matter of keeping your enemies closer,” says a council member. Quinn’s most controversial choice was Brooklyn’s Erik Martin Dilan, who inherited his seat from his father, now State Senator Martin Dilan, who was named to head the influential Housing and Buildings Committee. According to Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, this was a fairly straightforward thank-you to Lopez. “Vito Lopez controls several not-for-profits that provide housing in Brooklyn, and he’s the chair of the Assembly housing committee,” says Dadey. “By putting Erik there, it keeps the housing empire within the family.” Quinn also gave Manhattan council members and key supporters Dan Garodnick and Inez Dickens plum positions: Garodnick a seat on the Land-Use Committee and Dickens the Ethics Committee chair. Only five council members were left entirely in the cold, without chairmanships or lulus. “My money was on the wrong horse, and she had to reward her supporters,” says Letitia James, a Brooklyn councilwoman who backed De Blasio and was one of the outcasts. But as Sheinkopf puts it, “What’s she supposed to do, reward her enemies?”